The upside to de Blasio’s New York is that crime is down so far you can get sprung from jury duty in less than a day — there are no trials. The downside is that you’ll get only one lunch in Chinatown. I spent my penned-up morning planning where to head during what turned out to be an hour-and-a-half break and was not really surprised most online recommendations were for anything but Chinese. Which is how I wound up in the whitest place for blocks. I’d been to Dim Sum Go Go many times, but either I have been spending too much time in Flushing with savvy eaters or it was always “safe.” My duck dumplings and snowpea-leaf dumplings, both steamed, took a while to arrive and tasted bland in the case of the latter and borderline geriatric in the case of the former. Each order of three was about $4.50, too, which made me wonder why people bitch about RedFarm’s prices. I also left thinking you can eat Chinese alone but you really shouldn’t. Although the one time the waiter smiled was when he saw the 20 percent tip from an old white lady with no sharing companions.
I came home from my consort’s birthday dinner at Fung Tu on the Lower East Side determined not to Tweet but to think things through rather than squandering good ideas in 140 characters. More than two weeks have gone by, so here I am to say it was actually a thrill to realize we could walk out of a restaurant and get lost, after going on 34 years in Manhattan. We had walked south to the end of Orchard Street and turned right and found ourselves completely disoriented — why were we walking toward the Williamsburg Bridge if we were heading west? (Answer: We had never been that far east on Canal before; we both thought it ended around the Bowery.)
I also have to report that it took two and a half hours online to find a restaurant that could even let our credit cards in on the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend. What the hell ever happened to the city emptying out on long holidays? I realize it’s the tourists flooding in who are clogging the system, but some part of me also wonders if a lot of restaurants were “fully committed” just for appearance’s sake. We walked past one that had had only 5 and 5:30 openings online that was nearly empty around 9.
And I got our table through Fung Tu’s website, which uses not OpenTable but Yelp for reservations and offered a genius option: If anything opened up the next day, it would text me with 15 minutes to text back whether I was in. So we got our 7 o’clock seating (we’re olds), and both the automated system and an actual human checked back twice to confirm as the hour of the olds approached.
As for the meal, the whole experience seemed influenced by what I suspect is the Keller Effect. The chef, and I assume others, had worked at Per Se, so the staff was solicitous, the noise level serene, the seating comfortable despite the tight quarters, the bathroom tile artfully designed. When the waiter delivered fried clams we hadn’t ordered, another server insisted we keep them (and they were worth spending money on, tender-crisp with a lively dipping sauce).
We started with something even more sensational: dates stuffed with shredded duck, smoked and then fried. Our next shared small plate was good but odd, a fava bean curd terrine, sprinkled with pickled mustard greens and bits of bacon, and the one after that was too similar in texture. I liked the scallion masa pancake more than Bob did, even though it came with my favorite bird (chicken). But the last dish was spectacular: spaetzl with Sichuan ground pork, the spicy meat the perfect contrast to the soft noodlettes. We were also glad the waitress persuaded us to add a side of water spinach cooked in whey broth; the whole dish was elevated to something so much more. Plus the $22 portion was big enough to kittybag; we split it for lunch a couple of days later. WIGB? Absolutely, not least because the tab before tip was $138 for all that food plus a bottle and two glasses of anything-but Chardonnay wine.
And given that I’m in birthday mode, I’m going to confess it’s only been a year and a half since we had a fabulous evening at Lafayette for mine in 2014 that I never got around to writing about here (quiet table in the corner in the front; fine pumpkin risotto with duck confit and chestnuts). And it’s only a year since we celebrated Bob’s at the Gander (his request is always for interesting food, what he won’t get at home because this trained cook is basically unambitious). Underlines on the dusty menu on my desk indicate we had brisket “tots” (tater, not kiddle) with mustard (strands caught in my cranial sieve indicate they were almost too meaty), and brown butter panzotti with taleggio, chanterelles, ramps and Parmesan (not a shopping list but actual flavor-texture coherence) and arctic char with coco beans, chorizo, leeks and beurre rouge (good but unfortunately too close to the kitchen where I do the chopping and dishwashing). I do recall we ate in a luxurious booth and the sommelier became our friend once we ordered a cheap but interesting white; I think he said you could judge his list by the fact that it took two months for any customer to ask for pinot grigio. WIGB to either, though? Haven’t yet.
The good: Toloache in Midtown, where we headed with friends at their suggestion after “The Butler” on bullet-free 42nd Street and where, as always, the small plates were big enough. We split an order of excellent straightforward guacamole with a side of superb salsa while waiting for that booth at the bar with margaritas, then divvied up a quesadilla with huitlacoche. I passed on sharing all their various tacos because my tortilla soup was beyond big enough if not quite at the awesome level of the version on 83rd Street. (Which made me think of the global chef who told me recently that every recipe an underling makes loses 10 percent of the original.) Still, WIGB? Anytime.
The surprisingly good: Pascalou on the Upper East Side, where we wound up after showing up on the wrong night for a lavish soiree for friends’ birthdays — and there are few neighborhoods that are more food-desolate than that one. The host was half-amusing, asking us which of us had reserved and responding to our “neither” with some British dis and conceding “well, most of our regulars aren’t back from the Hamptons” so he could give us a table. I forget why we quit going there, but aside from the Town & Country crowd, it delivered with both food and service. The menu, as always, was all over the atlas, so Bob had Middle Easternish grilled shrimp while I was beyond happy with my little slab of superb pissaladiere (on pate brisee rather than puff pastry) with good and generous greens/salad for all of $10. We should have sprung for a bottle of rosé rather than four glasses for much more, but WIGB? Absolutely. Even the French bread and butter impressed not just me but Mr. Sprat.
The not so good: Shanghai Asian Cuisine in Chinatown, where my consort and I wound up after bailing on a 45-minute wait at our first choice on a Sunday after visiting the spooky storage center. Maybe we’ve just calibrated our palates after the last couple of years of chopstick-wielding with our eating Asian/Asian eating pals, but the food this time just seemed ordinary. The fried dumplings that had haunted me as ethereal were doughy, the pickled cabbage almost inedibly sweet. At least the soup dumplings were perfection (as was the guy at the table across from us who advised the couple next to him: “Next time bring an Asian and you’ll know what to order”). WIGB? Nope. As we walked through the Hong Kong Supermarket afterward, I realized I could make any of that at home. If I were so inclined.
The “it’s complicated:” The Cutting Room in Koreatown, where a great friend treated us to dinner and a Holly Williams (granddaughter of Hank) show and where the Health Department may or may not have ruined the rhythm. Our food took just short of forever to arrive even though we were there super-early, and the waitress blamed an inspection even though Bob noticed other tables were eating as we merely drank. Pretty shitty, if it was bureaucratic bungling, to muck up a live experience. My crab cakes were surprisingly creditable, though. And she comped us fries. WIGB? For $15 for live music, $17 for creditable crab cakes? Absolutely, even if we were paying.
We also repeatedly liked Luke’s, which is almost unnervingly consistent with those lavish lobster rolls, and also Cocina Economica, where the chorizo torta with spicy fries is very hard to beat for $8 (although the guacamole was beyond tame and lame despite the hint of papalo that had me burping all afternoon). And we finally had breakfast at Fairway when a friend was in from Chicago and had to get her pancake fix. I shoulda gone the Big Boy route, with a stack plus eggs plus bacon, is all I’ll say.
The seriously good: Shanghai Asian Cuisine in Chinatown, where my consort and his studio manager and I took a lunch break on their run to the storage space down in the old NYPost building near the Seaport that would make a perfect setting for a remake of “The Shining.” I’d picked the tiny place from a Robert Sietsema rave, and the soup dumplings were everything he promised, perfectly made and with great flavor. As were the steamed dumplings filled with greens, very delicate texturally but intense-tasting. We all thought the mock duck was way above average, and the noodles with a kind of meat gravy were fine. But the fried pork dumplings turned out to be what we’ve all most craved ever since — they made me realize how rare those are when done to greaseless perfection. WIGB? Absolutely. Everything was in the $5 to $7 range, and the whole staff actually seemed happy to please us. 14A Elizabeth Street, 212 964 5640.
The not bad: Sezz Medi up near Columbia, where we trotted after a excellent morning seeing the Pete Souza Obama photo show at the Schomburg Center and touring Alexander Hamilton’s Grange before Bob had to be at school to coach aspiring journalists. We wanted fast and good, but sit-down, so we ordered without really thinking. Decent if a bit grease-sodden fried calamari and zucchini arrived in minutes, but my BLT took so long we had plenty of time to argue about why anyone would order such a thing in an Italianesque restaurant. It was okay, and came with fine fries with garlic, and really was a lot of food for $8. But I think six pizzas came out before one sandwich. WIGB? Maybe, if we found ourselves stranded in that neighborhood.
The great again: Hunan House in Flushing, where I met a few members of the best little eating group I’ve ever connected with and where we ate ourselves smart (I think with seven or nine dishes) for all of $20 a head. All I wanted was the smoked duck, but the group went for a different version, with dried turnips and white pepper (aka chilies), and I had no complaints. That kitchen is definitely not afraid of heat. The lazy Susan was spinning, with dan dan noodles and pumpkin cake and pickled Hunan cabbage flying by, but I was most impressed by the (comped) winter melon with black beans and chilies, the braised beef with chilies and black beans and especially with the Hunan mustard greens. A whole fish, though, just tasted muddy to me (you are what you eat, and grain doesn’t cut it). WIGB? Absolutely, but now I want to try its sister restaurant, without the hourlong ride. 718 353 1808.
The mostly good: Tertulia in the West Village, where I connected with friends in from Philadelphia after being warned on the phone that it would be tough to get in because it was Beard Eve but where we were instantly shown to a great table. I was a little worried by the grease/smoke smell hanging over the whole room, but the food was outstanding: eggs stuffed with smoked cod; mushrooms on toast with (allegedly) smoked ricotta and pine nuts; ham croquettes, and grilled asparagus with poached egg. I only tasted a bit of the chocolate-sea salt tart and the crema catalana. Service was a bit distracted, but it was Beard Eve . . . WIGB? Anytime. Despite the tumblers that always make wine taste as if it came from a hose. 359 Sixth Avenue near Waverly Place, 646 559 9909.
The worth-the-journey: Fort Defiance in Red Hook, where we landed with another couple on our little expedition to a different neighborhood that also involved Key lime pie (good but not life-changing), then excellent iced tea at Baked plus samples of just-distilled rum at an open house at Van Brunt Stillhouse. We had our maiden voyage through an Ikea beforehand, after the free Saturday ferry dumped us right there, and must have carried away some of the craziness that comes from too much choice, because we looked at every other eating option before heading back after leaving our names and being told the wait would be 15 minutes. So we walked in and sat right down, in a quiet table in the very back, and soon were being seduced by the cocktail list. My spritz was not bubbly enough but was the right choice to go with a huge fluffy biscuit flooded with sausage gravy alongside poached eggs that just needed Tabasco; the guys succumbed to excellent Ramos gin fizzes that didn’t play so well with either granola or Bob’s kick-ass grillades and (Anson) grits, with what must have been a very large calf’s cheek in lively sauce. Joanne’s omelet looked like an omelet, though. WIGB? If I lived closer, for sure. The room, the service, the mood were all just right. And while eggs out scare me, the menu promised safe sourcing. 365 Van Brunt Street, 347 453 6672.
The oy: Fairway, in what I call the flagship store, where we met friends who now have a 14-month-old for an early dinner on a Friday that I figured would last about an hour. I think we almost closed the place down, with very little of that time spent eating and drinking. Plus the pizza was the worst ever, just slopped out. The parents were smart, though: they brought mooshed-up fish and vegetables for the daughter. And she at least got to get up and walk around while waiting. And waiting.
The not-terrible: Osteria Cotta on the Upper West Side, where Bob and I landed after the very smart “We Have a Pope” and where a sidewalk table, even under scaffolding, made up for mediocre food and ditzy service. Caponata bruschetta suffered from the tasteless main ingredient; pizza verdure was soggy and wan, and the endive and watercress salad may or may not have had actual Gorgonzola in it. The best part was when the waitress brought my second glass of wine and it was half-full. “Oh, I guess I took it from the bartender too fast.” WIGB? Maybe. But not anytime soon.
The regrettable: Calexico’s taco cart, parked across from Madison Square in one of those Bloomberg triangles where I stumbled upon at least a dozen mobile vendors assembled in some sort of promotion through June 1. I’d walked by the cart before, but the line reminded me of our friend Leslie Wong’s memorable line about New Yorkers: “The more they get fucked, the more they like it.” On this Wednesday it was no shorter, but after checking out the other options I decided it was worth the wait even with Roberta’s right next “door.” Now can someone please explain to me why I thought carne asada was the filling to go for with mad cow loose in the land? Or what in hell the rubber chunks billed as skirt steak really were?
The half-great: Ma Peche, where my consort and I met up with friends who wanted to try it after their first choice of Osteria Morini was fully committed and where we were all worried about the tab given the bizarre absence of prices on both Menupages and the website (why should the paying customer be the last to know?) So I’ll get the bad part out of the way first: We waited 45 minutes for the reserved table, after getting shunted to the hotel lobby and then to the bar, where we all awkwardly held our unchecked coats and drinks while surrounded by a . . . shall we say . . . low-rent crowd and inhaling the grease fumes from the kitchen downstairs. (Always fun to consider how close “hospitality” and “hostility” are.) Also, once we were finally seated the wine took its “savory” time arriving, and the service would best be described as desultory. But the table turned out to be one surrounded by bigger tables of guys going all Tom Jones on beef and bones, so it was like being on an island of quiet. And the food was exceptional, starting with the perfectly made spring rolls. We just stuck everything in the center and shared, and not one dish disappointed. The duck, a tender breast plus sausage plus hoisin spaetzl, was the best I’ve tasted in years. Cod came in second, in a lively shellfish broth with ginger and coconut. The broccoli appetizer has me attempting to replicate it at home, with miso and sesame seeds. And while I’m not much on pork (flesh, not fat), the Bev Eggleston chop was blowaway, even at $68 for two. That, unfortunately, is the one price I can quote, because Bob and George split the bill and we came home with no printout. WIGB? Absolutely. Cooking like this reinforces why this trained cook goes to restaurants. 15 West 56th Street.
The promising: The new Ditch Plains on the UWS, where Bob and I wandered in after the Sunday Greenmarket and spotted strollers, the surest sign someone was serving. Turned out it was a soft opening, with 15 percent off the check. We found out the second half of that sentence only when the check arrived, but we were mellow knowing it wasn’t “live” yet. So it didn’t really matter that the fried pickles as an appetizer were inexpertly fried, although it did make me worry after having ordered fish and chips despite the waitress having told us she had not seen that yet, let alone tried it. Cod instead of the usual muddy tilapia sold me, though, and the excellent fries and perfect frying compensated for the lack of crust on the nearly naked fillets. And the dipping sauce, the same as for the pickle fries, elevated everything. Bob ordered the quite good spicy shrimp salad without specifying the appetizer size, so the $7 off the tab helped. We were among the few not ordering alcohol, but both the bloody Marys and the wine list looked enticing (no glasses, only bottles and half-bottles, at very good prices). The space seems much more inviting in its latest reincarnation, and the manager was extremely gregarious. WIGB? Absolutely, despite all those strollers — G.M. said the kitchen will stay open till 2 a.m., which is a huge boon on the early-to-bed UWS. 100 West 82d Street, 212 362 4815.
The “WTF was I thinking?”: New Chiu Chow in Chinatown, where we wound up after I plucked the name out of the Village Voice listings in desperation as we were rushing to schlep down to Bob’s storage room in the old NYPost building — the name had me at Chiu Chow, which really is “Cantonese with flavor,” as they said in Hong Kong, and the tout mentioned that most irresistible of foods: duck. But as soon as we walked into the dingy room and had to wait a few minutes for a table away from the door I knew we were in the wrong place. But the menu did promise duck, and it was not bad, if nowhere close to what we first had in Hong Kong or now make at home. Good thing we ordered a half, not a quarter, because the “spicy spare ribs” on rice with black bean sauce proved to be chewy nuggets of creepy industrial pork. And the Chinese vegetables in oyster sauce seemed very rudimentary for the price, again something we could have thrown together at home. Only as I was sitting dejectedly did we notice every other table was eating the same thing, the soup. Which is, of course, exactly why most onliners recommend it. Oh, well. The leftover duck was rescusitable in dumplings using wrappers from Hong Kong Supermarket, after a respectable egg custard from the bakery across the street. WIGB? From now on, we are never eating Chinese in Chinatown. We’re either trekking happily to Flushing or opting for anything else. Even “Italian.”
The really good: Great NY Noodletown, where my consort and I headed for Saturday lunch when I realized it had to be the safest place in Chinatown after getting shut down by the Health Department. The roast duck was outstanding as always, the lo mein with a plethora of ginger and scallions sublime again. But the sautéed pea shoots were also amazing, light and fresh and greaseless, with just enough chunky garlic. All of that came to about $20 before a good tip. Also as always, the waiters were both patient and efficient. WIGB? Guiltily, because there are so many other places we should try, especially the newish Malaysian and Vietnamese ones. But I can never forget that health inspector quoted in the New Yorker eons ago: No sane New Yorker eats in Chinatown. 28 Bowery at Bayard, 212 349 0923.
The pretty good: Great N.Y. Noodletown in Chinatown, where my consort insisted we head after hearing from a chef at an amazing party that the God of Momofuku had been inspired by a dish there. We hadn’t been in years, but aside from the price of the roast duck to go, nothing seemed to have changed much, although the staff was mellower and the proportion of Caucasians was higher. We waited briefly for wedged-in-tight seats at a communal table and had steaming-hot tea instantly. Ordering duck rolls from that kitchen was not the smartest move, but the two of them benefited from great ingredients if not skillful frying. Bob got advice from both a tablemate and the waiter on the quest dish, and it was both surprisingly simple and lively. I’m a duck junkie and almost overdosed on roast duck on rice. We walked out stuffed for $14.25 including tax and tip. WIGB? Absolutely. 28 1/2 Bowery at Bayard, 212 349 0923.
The pretty bad: The Edison Hotel’s cafe off Times Square, where I met a friend in from the mashed potato mines in Boston who needed to eat close to Penn Station and which I will not dignify by calling the Polish Tea Room. Despite two sentences in Times Square, I’d never been, and now I see why. The room has its weird charm, but time apparently stopped in the kitchen about the time grape jelly in individual packets was invented. The toast was industrial, the fatty bacon (which I’d ordered crispy) was stringy-scary, the scrambled eggs had something crunchy in them I hope was shells; only the home fries were respectable if not great. My friend succumbed to stewed prunes and an order of blintzes with sour cream; the latter choice, she said, would have been better with something acidic. The damn things were huge, though. She had coffee, I was too timid and settled for club soda, which was served in a plastic Coke cup. The ancient waiter was shuffling evidence that decades of experience don’t always pay off. WIGB? Not on a bet. Good thing I’d noticed online that the tip is included or we would have felt even more ripped off.
The decent: Dhaba in Curry Hill, where Bob and I wound up for a fast lunch after the Wednesday Greenmarket when I needed to do a curry-leaf-and-Kalustyan’s run and his choice, Tiffin Wallah, had too long a line for its $6.95 smorgasbord. I guess we got our extra $3 worth: A table opened up fast, and the app and bread were waiting on it by the time we got through the mobbed buffet line. As always, I had only veg (saag paneer, aloo matar, kadhai bhindi, dal, plus curds and chutneys) and was fine with it all; Bob indulged in lamb and various chicken curries, too, then we split the carrot dessert. Can you say filling? Dinner was a mesclun salad followed by popcorn. . . WIGB? Maybe. The place looks great, and the staff has almost gotten its act together. 108 Lexington Avenue near 28th Street, 212 679 1284.
The good: Dim Sum Go Go in Chinatown, where a friend and I sat for 2 1/2 hours over exactly $27 worth of food, tax and tip while the waiters just kept refilling the teapot and water glasses. At a nice window table we split steamed dumplings (including duck, Chinese parsley, seafood), fried turnip cakes and shiu mai, all faultless. So what if half the other patrons came in clutching guidebooks and the only Asians in the joint were staff? It’s clean and bright and hospitable, not to mention very easy to talk there. WIGB? Anytime. 3 East Broadway off Chatham Square, 212 732 0797.
The seriously good: Bar Boulud, where a friend and I wound up with a great sidewalk table after an odd little evening of Will “Tear Down This Myth” Bunch and “Laughing Liberally” in the Theater District; we just wanted salad and a glass of wine, but $12 for either seemed a little steep at the first places we considered, and PJ Clarke’s looked and sounded like a 20-something WASP convention in Bedlam. So we took our $24 across the street. Of course once we sat down salads seemed absurd when there was all that charcuterie to be had, so she ordered Grand-pere and I chose the excellent $15 tourte de canard, with foie gras layered throughout. My white was all of $9, but her red took forever to arrive, as did her knife. Bread, though, was excellent. The waiter seemed disappointed by our dainty order, although he warmed right up when I asked for a kitty bag for my half-eaten paté. WIGB? Such a deal! And Wyl-E was so happy. 1900 Broadway near 63d Street, 212 595 0303.
The “terrific:” Kefi, yet again, where my friend in from a dining wasteland was quite pleased and not just because we were comped really good orzo with shrimp, feta, spinach and tomatoes. The waiter listened when he wanted something more austere than the glass of white I ordered while waiting for him, and the bottle whose name I didn’t note was a step up and poured at just the right pace as we split the always-great spreads and then swordfish and striped bass (the latter made a superb lunch next day to share with The Cat WCTLWAFW). Gary paid, which should have made me feel terrible, but the place is such a bargain. WIGB? Very soon, I’m sure. 505 Columbus Avenue near 84th Street, 212 873 0200.
The oddly off: The New French, where it was damn lucky the food was as spectacular as always and the design holds up because the service and noise level were mortifying. I didn’t realize what a bad choice it would be for the combination of a soft-spoken scholarly writer and someone who, in the immortal phrase of a friend in Treviso, “chews words.” I couldn’t hear her, and she had it even worse — at one point she thought I was talking about Craig Claiborne rather than John Hess and reacted as if I had said Paula Deen was the new Julia Child. The waitress was an absolute ditz in a half-full room: took forever to come over, had to be hailed for a second glass of rosé, forgot my friend’s second beer, never refilled the water glasses, had to be hailed for the check, had to be hailed again to be told she overcharged me by $4 (sparkling/Spanish/what’s the diff?). And if I had to hear the same track of the Mamas and Papas blasting over all the braying one more time. . . . Still, WIGB? Absolutely. That Cheddarburger with heap o’ fries is just the best. Friend was happy with fresh tuna sandwich, too. And they let us sit far, far longer than Pearl would. 522 Hudson Street at 10th, 212 807 7357.
The really good: Fatty Crab uptown on second try, where my consort and I snagged seats at the bar away from the din and where we scored with food, service and lagniappe. It was a choice between a crappy table right inside the door or a 20-minute wait, so we settled for the latter and stayed put once we saw what people around us were eating. The bartender was patient and solicitous, too, pouring glasses of Grüner to try before filling them and doing a serious selling job on the special chicken-and-oyster banh mi, endorsed by the guy to my right. I had gone in wanting only wine but agreed to the green mango salad to go with the Fatty Dog Bob ordered; we were halfway through it when the touted banh mi landed. The bartender admitted he had gotten so distracted selling it that he had put it through as an order, so he said we should take it for free while he got the right dish. And it was all he said it would be, as was the dog, actually XO-flavored sausage in a soft bun. Best news: The mango salad is back in proper proportion. WIGB? Absolutely; the kitchen has hit its stride. 2170 Broadway near 77th Street, 212 496 2722.
The pretty bad: Cabrito, where we settled after schlepping around the West Village after the Greenmarket, finding the new Vietnamese place in Time Out a long way from open and the menu at Centro Vinoteca a little unpromising. I should have known not to enter any restaurant with exactly two customers at prime brunchtime, and we paid more than the $12 price of the entrees: The arepa “biscuits” under the fried eggs and chorizo gravy on my plate were sawdusty-dry and too thick by half; if the eggs had not been cooked so hard oozy yolks might have helped, and I hate oozy yolks. Worse, the “gravy” separated out into fat and chunks, to the point that it will be a while before I brave chorizo again. Bob shelled out $7 extra for goat, and it was certainly better than my food, big chunks of the meat with three fresh tortillas, chopped onions, cilantro, salsa borracha and crema. Guacamole was not bad, either. But both of us nearly fell asleep on the subway home, and both of us needed naps before heading out to a dinner party. Does goat have tryptophan? WIGB? Nope. Second time was the turnoff.
The promising: Dhaba in Curry Hill, where I stopped for fortification before getting all but thrown out of a shop for taking out a notebook and pen. The buffet lunch is $9.95, and if it was not Chola-level it was redeemed by the naan, far superior to what I have had anywhere else in town. I prefer veg over non-veg and was happy enough with the potatoes, spinach, peas and dal on offer, but people who eat lamb and chicken would do better here. Two tandoori drumsticks arrived with a little plate of limp fried potatoes and other vegetables as an appetizer, and they were actually pretty good. The carrot dessert was also surprisingly satisfying, and I have no sweet tooth. I missed the raita and the mango pickle. Service qualified as discombobulated at best, but WIGB? For sure, for lunch. 108 Lexington Avenue near 28th Street, 212 679 1284.
The gruesome: Nha Trang One, where I stupidly wasted my one jury-duty lunch thanks to a notebook jotting about it being a favorite of an admirable chef and where the F&W tout posted in the window should have been a warning. I studied both lunch and dinner menus for a long time, realizing as I slowly turned the pages that I knew way too little to be even trying to navigate the cryptic descriptions, before randomly pointing at something in the beef section starred as spicy. Five seconds later a mound of gray meat and white rice with big nasty hunks of onion arrived, and it was so profoundly disappointing I called the waiter over to ask for spring rolls — grease absolves many sins. But these, which arrived in all of 10 seconds, were even nastier, more wrapper than filling with no discernible flavor. The people were nice, and the bathroom was wild (black fixtures), and the $4 wine was a big gobletful. But WIGB? Not a Chinatown chance in hell.
The good: Dim Sum Go Go, where we lucked in while trekking from the South Street Seaport to Nolita on a mid-Saturday and where we had mostly splendiferous food in a reassuringly clean environment (the bathrooms were even fragrant, in a good way). I haven’t eaten in Chinatown in years, since that devastating New Yorker piece on Health Department inspectors, but it was hard to resist an old favorite. We snared a tiny table fast and split perfectly fried pork dumplings, turnip cakes, steamed crab and “three-star” vegetable dumplings plus two orders of steamed duck dumplings (the waiter was right: they’re the best). Everything was delicate and carefully made and cooked right. I think the bill was about $25, and the service managed the impossible: helpful, mellow and efficient. Best of all, just as I was feeling stupid for being in a room with mostly gweilos, Pichet Ong came bouncing past on his way out, saying it was his favorite place in Chinatown. WIGB? Can’t wait till next Christmas. 5 East Broadway, 212 732 0796.
The better: Maremma, where we headed on New Year’s Eve for the second Dec. 31 and where we were just as happy we didn’t go back to searching for something new. The regular menu was on offer; Cesare was in fine form in red sneakers; Champagne was poured; the noise level was mellow until the place got busy just as we were leaving. And the food was, as always, really satisfying. He comped us the lardo and then his own salsiccia with lentils before we could order the traditional but imported cotechino, then we had an amazing apple salad, exceptional peppery farro with mussels and comped Tuscan fries. My pasta, a special with goose, was like what I would make at home with duck, but it was hard to complain when our $39 Tuscan wine from a sentimental favorite producer was also comped. We overtipped happily and came home with enough leftovers for a superb lunch. WIGB? Anytime. 228 West 10th Street off Bleecker, 212 645 0200.
The not bad: Green Table in the Chelsea Market, where I stopped in desperation one afternoon at an off-hour and where, aside from a grubby wineglass, I had a perfectly satisfying little lunch. Every place else I had tried to try between Le Du’s and Appellation was either not serving or serving junk, so I was happy to find a $14 platter built around very good trout and duck rillettes, each packed into little canning glasses and teamed with baguette toasts from Amy’s Bread across the concourse, a fine little mesclun salad and a teeny dish of pickled root vegetables (one of which cracked a wisdom tooth and I didn’t even mind). I’ve walked past this place more times than I can count but now see why it’s usually busy. WIGB? Probably. 75 Ninth Avenue, 212 741 6623.
The repeatable: La Rural, where we went back after a movie with friends who had reserved at Cafe Luxembourg but who agreed the chance to try good wines in a BYO environment was irresistible. Their shared ribeye was good, but I have to say our skirt steak was even better; the fries without the Provencal treatment were okay, while the multicolor salad had no dressing. The service was outstanding, with fresh glasses offered for our second bottle, and much charm. And, luckily for us if not the owners, the dining room was empty enough that we could almost talk comfortably. WIGB? Inevitably. 768 Amsterdam Avenue near 97th Street, 212 749 2929.
The overlooked: La Pizza Fresca, where I just remembered we ate right before Christmas with a bunch of my consort’s friends from his new universe and where the whole experience was better than it had any right to be. The waiters were fools and neglected us after the food landed, not realizing how much more they could have sold, but the cooking and wine were fine, and we got a long table out of the way of aural assault. One FOB had eaten there the night before and was thrilled to be back, steering us to the right pizzas and indulging us with appetizer choices (fried calamari, polenta with mushrooms and Montasio, etc.) Sitting right by the pizza oven added to the good vibe in a place we had given up on after a bad experience with an Italian friend years ago. WIGB? Probably. 31 East 20th Street, 212 598 0141.